CULTURE & ARTS
07/31/2015 05:40 pm ET

About That Gritty, Dystopian 'Little Women' Reboot: It's Brilliant

Louisa May Alcott is probably jumping for joy in her grave.
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The dainty little women of Louisa May Alcott’s charming, PG-rated 1868 classic might be rolling over in their graves at the thought of this reboot, which relocates the March sisters to Philadelphia, transforms them into “half-sisters” and sets them up with the task of uncovering a vast conspiracy.

Alcott, on the other hand -- I think she’ll be resting quite comfortably.

It’s no longer a secret that the author, long known for her sweet, domestic tales for younger readers, didn’t exactly relish writing such cozy stories. She grew to see her stories of the March sisters as “moral pap for the young,” and the books certainly sand off (partially at the insistence of publishers) some of the darker or less societally acceptable aspects of Alcott’s own youth, on which Little Women was based. Jo, for example, was married off against her wishes -- though Alcott rebelled against her publisher by marrying Jo to an old professor rather than jolly Laurie.

The March sisters live in what we might call genteel poverty, with the Civil War as a vague, distant backdrop. Their adored father spends the first part of the story on the front, nobly caring for wounded soldiers. The family is left less than wealthy, but reasonably comfortable.

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In the real Alcott household, the picture didn’t appear so rosy. Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist who rubbed elbows with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, was so relentlessly idealistic that his family often faced significant deprivation. In 1843, he cofounded Fruitlands, a Utopian farm community that quickly proved lacking in the “fruit” department. The land failed to yield much in the way of crops, and Alcott limited their options even more by refusing to allow root vegetables, warm bathwater, leather, meat, coffee, cotton, wool, or, well, basically anything that might lead to human comfort. 

Meanwhile, Louisa May was living a more demanding childhood than Jo of Little Women, whose sacrifices are generally downplayed as minor and part of a fulfilling life. Her family participated in the Underground Railroad. To supplement her household’s income, she and her sisters worked from a young age as seamstresses, while Louisa May also taught and wrote. She briefly worked as a nurse during the Civil War, until she fell very ill, and her Hospital Sketches, based on her time there, helped launch her writing career.

In short, Louisa May Alcott’s life was a bit more gritty than Winona Ryder’s Jo would have us think; in transforming her memories into palatable domestic fables for young readers, she sanitized and sweetened an upbringing that was far from prim.

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Plus, remember those shocking potboilers Jo wrote to make quick money in Little Women? Alcott argues, in the book, that these horror tales and pulp thrillers lack artistic and moral fiber. “I do not think that good young girls should see such things,” says Professor Bhaer to Jo, after he reads a sensational story much like the ones she writes. Convinced, “Jo wrote no more sensational stories,” wrote Alcott. “[T]he faults of these poor stories glared at her dreadfully and filled her with dismay.”

Strong condemnation -- especially coming from Alcott, who herself secretly wrote pulpy thrillers much like the ones she laments as immoral in Little Women. Under the nom de plume A.M Barnard, she wrote shocking tales of revenge and suspense aimed at a far more adult audience than Little Women.

Why did she also write such moralistic tales as Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl? Perhaps the clue is in the very scene where Jo is tempted to sell racy pulp fiction: “‘People want to be amused, not preached at, you know,’” Jo’s editor tells her. “‘Morals don't sell nowadays.’ Which was not quite a correct statement, by the way.”

Cheekily, Alcott alluded to how well morals have sold for her -- this scene occurs in the second part of Little Women, Good Wives, written after the immense success of the original volume. "She said, 'Money is the means and the ends of my mercenary existence,'" scholar Harriet Reisen told NPR. "She wrote what she called 'moral pap for the young' because it pays well." To maintain this moralistic brand, Reisen added, "She suppressed the fact that she had written pulp fiction that included stories about spies and transvestites and drug takers."

So before we write off this odd reboot of the cherished, oft-adapted children’s book, let’s remember what Louisa May Alcott was really all about. We may fondly remember Little Women as a soft-focus image of a perfect childhood, but it was never as gritty as Alcott probably wanted it to be. Sure, a dystopian thriller set in futuristic Philly is a far cry from Civil War-era Massachusetts, but judging by the author’s well-kept secret career as a pulp fiction writer and her tough-as-nails childhood, it might be as close to the spirit of her work as the original children’s book. 

Besides: It sounds kind of amazing.

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